Contemplative Silence

Rievaulx Abbey: Michael D Beckwith, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

An article in today’s Guardian about English Heritage’s plan to introduce an hour of silence at some of its monastic sites made me chuckle and groan in equal proportions. It isn’t that I don’t think the call to focus, immerse oneself in the moment and allow the beauty and serenity of the setting to permeate one’s being is a bad idea. On the contrary. Slowing down, switching off one’s ‘phone and really listening, seem to me vitally important — vitally being underlined in that sentence — and any attempt to encourage these is to be applauded.

I admit to a passing irritation with the repetition of the old inaccuracies about monks and nuns when it would have taken very little trouble to get matters right. Benedictines and Cistercians, for example, don’t make vows of poverty and chastity as such, although they are assumed under the older formula of conversatio morum, a promise to live monastic life as it should be lived. The glancing reference to the penal code in the Rule of St Benedict made me sigh a little because it harped upon some of the more dramatic elements without regard to the frequency with which they were/are employed. (I suspect the use of corporal punishment and bread-and-water fasts in earlier centuries may have been exaggerated, and I’d be surprised if they were used at all nowadays.)

What really got under my wimple, however, was the idea that silence is a form of escape. If silence were nothing more than a fleeting avoidance of the rush and ruck of the world about us, it would still have value; but that isn’t what monastic or contemplative silence is. Monastic silence is an engagement, not an escape; and to be honest, it isn’t always pleasant. In silence we confront the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God, other people, and everything that is. It is a discipline, an ascesis, but I’d want to argue that it is more than that. It is a fundamental form of connection. Love prompts us to practice silence; and love is the fulfilment of its purpose.

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Words, Words, Words

It ironic that the writings of St Peter Chrysologus, whose name means ‘golden-worded’, should have almost entirely disappeared. We have 176 short homilies to justify his alternative title of ‘Doctor of Homilies’. Those I’ve read are refreshing: simple, direct and covering important topics like the Apostles’ Creed and fundamental doctrines of the Church. Some find him surprisingly ‘modern’. He advocates daily Communion, for example, and is good at explaining scripture. Yet it is his silence, what he does not say, that attracts me. He was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century so must have seen and heard much into which those of us who are not angelic long to look. Apparently, he got on well with Leo the Great and was influential at the imperial court. Fifteen hundred years later, the Churches of both East and West continue to commemorate his sanctity.

Old Saints: New Saints

I often think that these old saints, who inhabited a world and enjoyed a ‘world view’ very different in many respects from our own, are a better guide to holiness than some more recent models. Again, it is the silence that is so eloquent. The sayings of some of our more contemporary saints are interminable, endlessly turned into holy sound bytes which are neither profound nor helpful, merely irritating. I leave you to think of a few examples for yourselves, and if you can’t, be assured that you are obviously much holier than I am!

Silence and Restraint in Speech

So, silence: choosing the words to speak and when to say or write them. The monastic tradition puts great emphasis on this restraint, this disciplining of the self. Indeed it goes further, valuing physical silence for its own sake, for the way it opens us up to God and other people, for its role in making us wise and compassionate. It is not difficult to see how words are often abused or silence undervalued in today’s society. The trouble is, once we start distancing ourselves from this observable fact with references to concepts like ‘today’s society,’ we are apt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. We suggest that we are helpless, constrained by circumstances; but are we really — or are we being a little lazy?

Personal Choice

In Britain today I see and read much that makes me cringe — and I am not referring solely or even mainly to what passes for politics or takes place in social media. I can do very little about its worst excesses; but I can do something about my own words, my own silence. The point is, do I want to? Surely someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer, the Word made flesh, cannot be indifferent to the tiny words we use every day, to the creative silence that gives birth to the Mystery? Or can we? Perhaps a few minutes thinking about that question would yield an unexpected harvest of self-knowledge and renewed purpose.

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O Radix Jesse | 19 December 2020

Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!

Who does not love those beautiful medieval images of Jesse and the great tree of descendants springing from his loins — in stone at Christchurch, wood at Abergavenny (as shown above) and glass and stone in the window at Dorchester — and the genealogies of the gospels which all end with the birth of Christ? Jesus has a human ancestry as flawed and imperfect as our own. The way he looked, the way he spoke, the way he walked were a very human mixture of genes and upbringing. He is, so to say, of the earth, earthy, and among his ancestors are some very dodgy figures, including some non-Jews. Yet before him, the humble Galilean, kings stand silent and gentiles come in search. He, and he alone, can set us free from everything that binds us and lead us into the Promised Land where all is peace and joy. That, surely, is Jesse’s dream, a long, long dream down the centuries. I hope it is not too fanciful to see a connection between our modern word ‘dream’ and the Old English ‘drëam’, meaning ‘joy’ or ‘music’. The serenity of Jesse’s features suggest, to me at least, a man who gazed into the future and rejoiced at what he saw: a graceful flowering of all that he held most precious, a fruitfulness far beyond the ordinary.

Tempting though it is to linger among such images, we know it will not do. We cannot ask for freedom if we are not prepared to work at it, sacrifice for it, share it with others. Most of us are probably a little afraid of the chains that bind us, the sins we don’t quite see as sin, the comfortable accommodations with secular values that are a little selfish, a little self-indulgent maybe, but not really bad. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can be dangerous. Without falling prey to scrupulosity, we need to recognize that, as Christians, our way of acting should be different from that of others. If we are truly rooted in Christ, we must grow to be like him; and that is always going to be demanding. We are, of course, inclined to set limits. We don’t mind being a little stunted, a little pot-bound, it’s more comfortable that way. So, for instance, I’ll love other Christians, but I draw the line at loving those outside my comfort zone, Muslims/atheists/blacks/whites/conservatives/liberals (complete as appropriate). Hmn. I’m not sure about that, are you?

There are several scriptural texts we could ponder today (e.g. Isaiah 11.1; Isaiah 11.10; Jeremiah 23. 5-6: Micah 5.1; Romans 15. 8-13; Revelation 5.1-5; Revelation 22.16) but I am constantly drawn back to that silent, dreamy image of Jesse. Silence is characteristic of the men involved in the Infancy narratives, and I have often wondered why. Today, for example, Zachariah is struck dumb (Luke 1.5-25); Joseph will remain silent when instructed by the angel. We, by contrast, tend to rush into making observations or sharing our opinions with others. Perhaps we need to make some silence for ourselves today, so that we can reflect on the use we make of our own freedom — and the limits we impose on the freedom of others by the way we talk and act. Then we can make the prayer of the antiphon our own.

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Danger Zone?

smartphone in use

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplassh

Today’s first Mass reading, from Isaiah 29.17–24, and the chapter of the Rule of St Benedict we begin reading, RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, are both a little severe on how we interact with others and the potential dangers of doing so. For Isaiah there is the necessary caution to avoid gossip and incriminating others; for Benedict, the need to pray lest we be deceived by the devil. Jesus in the gospel, Matthew 9.27-31, cuts through all that by granting the blind clear sight, and that surely is what we need most — clarity of vision. Without it we are in the danger zone of muddled thinking, rash speech and stupid actions.

My choice of illustration for this post was not random. Not only is it a beautifully composed image, it is also eloquent. The smartphone has become for many of us an important way of connecting with others. It is immensely seductive. That tiny silvery glow, even in the dark of night, invites us to express thoughts and ideas we might hesitate to put into words face to face with someone; and, rather like reading an unputdownable book, we can easily find we have used up a lot of time intended for other purposes. In the monastery, that isn’t likely to happen because of the demands of the monastic timetable, but for those trying to make a good Advent, it can be more difficult. So, my suggestion for today is, try switching your ‘phone off for an hour if you can; listen to the silence (and silence is not broken by the sound of life going on around us); and you may find that you are listening to God.

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An Unexpected Sabbath

Having already written posts about social distancing and self-isolation and the importance of maintaining a welcoming attitude in times of pandemic, you would think I had said quite enough COVID-19. Probably I have, but yesterday I was struck by the number of people who are troubled about the prospect of being cut off from everyone and everything familiar and are struggling to make sense of what, at the moment, looks like total negativity. Perhaps that is the problem: seeing everything as negative. Would it help to look upon the limitations imposed by the spread of this new kind of coronavirus as providing us with an unexpected sabbath? The cessation of travel, the staying home, the curtailment of work to what is strictly necessary, the rediscovery of the joys of solitude and family life — aren’t these elements of sabbath we can find positive?

For us in the monastery the increased physical silence caused by less traffic on the road is already a blessing, reinforcing as it does the inner silence we cultivate as a means to prayer. Not everyone experiences silence as a blessing, of course, not at first anyway. It has to be learned, but perhaps the new circumstances in which we find ourselves will provide us all with an opportunity to discover why silence matters and to practise it in a way we’ve not had time for before. Call it an unexpected sabbath or making a cloister of the heart and we reclaim all that is positive about the experience of social distancing and self-isolation.

At the beginning of Lent we were invited to go into the desert with Jesus. The desert is a place of silence, demons, strange contests, immensely important to the monastic tradition as an image of the spiritual quest on which we are engaged. It is the place where Israel learned to love the Lord, where the Covenant was made, where the sabbath was given and where Jesus triumphed over temptation. The ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 takes many of us further into the desert than we ever expected. Let us go into it with faith, hope and joy, knowing that where we go, the Lord has gone before.

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On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

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The Sound of Silence

It’s easy to become lyrical about silence, isn’t it? All the great religions of the world seem to hold silence in veneration. In Christianity we have the immense paradox of  the creative word God speaks into the silence of non-being which is the Logos, the Word of God Incarnate. In the Benedictine monastic tradition, silence is the natural counterpart to the liturgy we celebrate in choir. We are immersed in silence, bathed in it all day long; but I don’t think you will find a single monk or nun who wouldn’t admit that, far from being the enviably peaceful state many imagine, it can be a searing experience. It confronts us with our inner poverty, challenges us to conversion of heart, casts a searching light on all that we would prefer to keep hidden.

The U.S. Senate report on the use of torture by the C.I.A. shows us another kind of silence, the collusive silence of fear and shame which has nothing redemptive in it. It is the silence of Adam and Eve after they had eaten the fatal fruit. This morning I think we all feel our humanity has been diminished — not because we are personally responsible, but because whatever one human being does to another affects us all. This shameful silence, too, has to be taken into our prayer, has somehow to be transformed, so that it is no longer destructive.

During these days of Advent we try to be a little more silent than usual because we are preparing to receive the Word of God as Saviour and Redeemer. We need to listen. Sometimes all we’ll hear is the sound of silence, like the beating of a bird’s wing against the air or the pumping of blood around our heart. We need the Holy Spirit to come and overshadow us with his mighty power,  just as he overshadowed Mary. If we ask, he will; but we must be prepared for the unexpected. God’s ideas are always so much bigger than our own.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Silence Days

From today, up to, and including, the First Sunday of Advent, we maintain complete silence in the monastery except for the liturgy and ‘necessary conversation’ — e.g. when the postman comes to the door. It is our way of bringing a sharp focus to bear on what Advent is about. It makes us realise how much noise we carry about within us, how many discordant thoughts and opinions. So, for three days we step back from that completely. I know from past experience it won’t be easy. If one drives one kind of noise out, another sneaks in to take its place. Punctuality for meals seems to undergo a mysterious sea-change. She who was always a minute late will now be five minutes early. Little quirks of behaviour that normally pass unremarked will become a source of profound irritation. On the plus side, one may be held entranced by the splash of light falling on a cupboard or feel, as if for the first time, the soft beauty of a wooden table or chair.

This change of pace and emphasis occurs when half the Western world seems to indulge in the mad materialism of Black Friday. I think that may be significant. We tend to confuse sufficiency and excess. Perhaps if we could all step back a little, even for half an hour, and think about what really makes for happiness, we might reassess our priorities. Silence is an eloquent teacher, if we are prepared to listen.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Wilderness Time: Preparing for Advent

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less; and the less talking means, for example, that we don’t write personal letters or emails or have people to stay at the monastery.

Our use of the internet and Social Media is always governed by the restraints we have agreed upon as a community, but during Advent it is, if anything, even more disciplined as we try to focus on the coming of Christ. The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen.

Perhaps there are a few ideas in this monastic approach to Advent you might find helpful yourself? Of one thing you can be sure, the nuns here will be praying for you as we go into our wilderness time.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Words, Words, Words

Depending on your interests, today is remarkable for being Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary, the feast of St George (only it isn’t, because the Easter Octave takes precedence), or the day we read Luke 24.13–35 and our hearts burn within us as Jesus opens the scriptures to us. The connection between all three is words.

Words tumble from our lips, ooze out on the page, trip through our tweets and generally identify us as human — we are not so much homo sapiens as homo loquens. The trouble is, as Swinburne remarked, ‘words divide and rend’ as much as they unite. Misunderstandings, deliberate falsehoods, churlish or rude remarks, they all contribute to the world’s pain. Just as a word can illuminate, enchant, build up or otherwise contribute to another’s well-being, so a word can break down, destroy. The monastic practice of silence, the cultivation of ‘few and sensible words’, stems from a realisation that in Christ God has uttered the only word that is utterly loving, forgiving and redemptive. That is the Word we must embrace and allow to speak through us today.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail